Save us from the politics of behaviour
From spotting ‘problem people’ before
they are born to advising dads on how to talk to their sons: government
agencies are colonising our private lives.
How long before British adults will need a licence to parent their
Prime minister Tony Blair and his New Labour colleagues seem to
believe that the solution to society’s problems lies in getting
their hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents
can ruin them. Their focus is on ‘early intervention’
– and for Blair, intervention can never be early enough. He
believes it is possible to spot tomorrow’s problem people
even before they are born. Weeding out unfit parents through imposing
quality control over their activities is a key plank of the early-intervention
movement. Until recently, their agenda was rarely seriously questioned;
however, questions have been raised following Blair’s statement
at the end of August 2006 that the state should spot potential problem
people before they are even born. For some, this was a step too
far. ‘This one about identifying troublesome children in the
fetus – this is eugenics, the sort of thing Hitler talked
about’, argued Tony Benn, former leader of the Labour Left
It is somewhat surprising that people are only now waking up to
the authoritarian implications of early-intervention policies. Early
intervention has been one of the principal policy innovations of
New Labour. Its Sure Start programme, as well as numerous local
initiatives launched in recent years, are primarily designed to
save children from their parents or to manage the emotional behaviour
of youngsters. The aim is to spot potential troublemakers and manage
their behaviour. This institutionalisation of what we might call
‘people-blaming’ reduces social problems to individual
Of course, individuals do have very real personal problems; some
find it difficult to function as a result, and others embark on
a path of destructive behaviour. But is the real problem that a
woman might smoke, might be overweight, left school when she was
16, had a child when she was 18, and is now living as a lone parent?
Or is it rather the culture of low expectations that pervades her
life, or perhaps the erosion of her community or the poor economic
circumstances of her own parents? We can pick and choose, or even
argue that all these are conditions that contribute to poor life
chances. But in the end, we have to decide whether this and other
individuals’ problems are rooted in their personal behaviour
and emotional deficits or in something beyond the individual –
be it a culture of low expectations, social anomie, or ‘old-fashioned’
poverty. These days, policymakers are inclined to focus on the personal
problems of the individual and to opt for the ‘politics of
behaviour’ as a remedy.
Policies built around behaviour management – sometimes referred
to as the ‘politics of behaviour’ or ‘positive
welfare’ – are an attempt to alleviate a crisis of legitimacy
within official authority. For some, these policies are an attempt
to ‘re-establish the social virtue of self-discipline’;
for others they are about encouraging people to adopt ‘positive
lifestyle choices. Whatever the motive, the politics of behaviour
presents problems as the outcome of individual or psychological
deficits. And through minimising the influence of the social, our
culture fosters a climate where the internal world of the individual
is seen as the site where societal problems are raised, and where
they apparently must be resolved.
New forms of state intervention
In a recent speech, Blair noted that policymaking’s shift
in focus from the social to the individual does not mean diminishing
state intervention – it merely means a change in the form
of state intervention. Blair pointed out that while the state will
withdraw from directly providing some services, it will adopt a
more activist role in other areas. The new emphasis is on influencing,
regulating and policing people’s lifestyles. ‘A more
responsive NHS can’t work unless patients also respond’,
he noted, adding that ‘more successful schools depend also
on more successful parenting’ (2). In other words, patients
must adopt the ‘right lifestyle’ and parents must socialise
their children according to best practice. From this standpoint,
policy outcomes ‘depend on the decisions and choices of millions
of individuals and companies’, and the task of Blair’s
‘enabling’ state is to ‘empower’ people
‘to make the right [choices]’. So the problems confronting
people are not social, but rather are a result of poor choices made
by uninformed, unmotivated or irresponsible individuals.
As Blair argues in relation to the NHS: ‘Our public health
problems are not, strictly speaking, public health questions at
all.’ Rather, he says, ‘they are questions of individual
lifestyle – obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse, diabetes, sexually
transmitted disease’ (3). Blair equates poverty – or
what is euphemistically characterised these days as ‘social
exclusion’ – with poor lifestyle choices. That is why
he can say that ‘social exclusion is one of the many policy
areas that are public health policy in disguise’. Changing
habits and behaviour underpins the policy of early intervention
in children’s lives. As Blair observes, ‘parents need
to be supported as habits can persist from childhood into adulthood’.
Governments are continually embarking on crusades that target people’s
diets, health, sex lives, parenting strategies, alcohol consumption
levels and their attitudes and behaviour towards others. This politicisation
of individual lifestyle is directly proportional to the de-politicisation
of public life. Consequently, the focus of public policy has shifted
from engaging with the responsible citizen to treating him as if
he were little more than a biologically mature child. In the Reagan-Thatcher
years, there was a distinct trend towards turning the citizen into
a customer. More recently, the decline in the status of the responsible
citizen has accelerated, and given rise to a model that infantilises
people as clients or patients, vulnerable individuals in need of
support. As a Downing Street policy analyst argued recently, the
government’s relation with the public is akin to the relation
between parents and their problem teenagers, who are unwilling to
be controlled but are not yet ready to take responsibility for their
With no vision or strategy for developing the public sphere, political
elites opt instead for the management of micro issues. Numerous
technical matters that were never previously the province of officialdom
have become the focus of government initiatives. The New Labour
government is now concerned that its clients may be ‘lacking
in the knowledge, skills or cooking equipment necessary to prepare
healthy meals’ (5). Most politicians no longer even pretend
to have any interest in promoting a distinct philosophy or an ambitious
political project. Instead they seem preoccupied with banal ‘lifestyle’
issues and petty schemes for intervening in our private affairs.
Policymakers do not confine themselves to preaching. Much policy
innovation is now driven by the desire actually to manage and change
how individuals live their lives. In March 2005, then UK secretary
of state for health, John Reid, announced government plans for a
‘healthier and fitter’ nation. The plans involved getting
experts to ‘draw up personal health plans for life’
for children. An army of Orwellian-sounding community matrons will
descend on schools to provide advice to ‘support’ children
to lead healthier lifestyles. Children will even be given pedometers
so that they can measure how far they walk in an attempt to encourage
them to take more exercise (6).
Adults are not left out. Apparently the government plans to launch
a magazine titled FIT, which will be aimed at young men. It will
‘raise awareness’ on issues such as condom-use and how
to lose weight. Reid also announced that a propaganda campaign will
be launched, ‘to build public awareness and change behaviour’
in areas such as obesity, sexual health and smoking. To assist this
objective of changing behaviour, the ‘independent’ National
Consumer Council (NCC) will be charged with developing a ‘social
marketing strategy that promotes health’. The NCC will also
‘consider health psychology and social research to determine
how best to influence lifestyle and change behaviour’.
It is clear that the UK government is not simply concerned with
providing information. It is in the business of behaviour modification.
That is why government ministers are not interested in social research
that helps to make sense of the world and points out the root causes
of problems facing the nation. Instead, their concern is solely
with research that can help them to influence and alter individual
behaviour. Once upon a time, such research was characterised as
propaganda and social marketing, a form of emotional manipulation.
Today, emotional manipulation is depicted as an instrument for ‘raising
awareness’. As Paul Barker, former editor of New Society,
wrote, the British government is ‘wedded to social intervention,
for which a better phrase would be social manipulation’ (7).
The assumption that government has the duty and the right to manage
and alter personal behaviour is a relatively new development. Governments
always sought to influence public behaviour – but they tended
to rely on local custom, moral norms and the informal pressures
of community life to influence individuals. In democratic societies
there used to be an unwritten rule that government should not intrude
into the domain of people’s private lives. This point was
at least rhetorically acknowledged in the UK government’s
1998 consultation document, Supporting Families. ‘Governments
have to be very careful in devising policies that affect our most
intimate relationships’, it warned (8). Yet despite striking
this note of caution, the document brazenly proposed intervention
into intimate aspects of family life. It outlined plans for a government
programme to help individuals prepare for marriage; it proposed
launching projects aimed at saving marriages; it also put forward
policies designed to help parents cope with the arrival of a baby.
On a more ominous note, it suggested imposing parenting orders
on mothers and fathers who are deemed to have failed to control
their children. Since the publication of this document, the UK government
has adopted a highly interventionist role. Former home secretary,
Jack Straw, stated that the culture of parenting needs to be changed
so that ‘seeking advice and help’ is ‘seen not
as failure but [as] the actions of concerned and responsible parents’.
One of his objectives was to turn parenting into a legitimate sphere
for government intervention (9).
The loss of any sense of restraint when it comes to intervening
in people’s private lives is one of the most significant developments
in public policy over the past two decades. Governments that have
become uncertain of their values and purpose have refocused their
energies on the management of individual behaviour and the regulation
of informal relationships. Increasingly, governments have sought
to adopt the role of protecting people from themselves and from
other members of the public. In return for acknowledging the authority
of government to play the role of a caring Big Brother, the state
is happy to provide support and affirmation to individuals in search
Take the UK government-sponsored publication, Married Life: A Rough
Guide for Couples Today. It offers paternalistic advice on everything
from how to buy a wedding ring to how couples should communicate
with one another. Couples are advised to allocate time for each
partner to speak without interruption. The pamphlet is written in
such a way that suggests that couples who are about to get married
are really only children playing at being grown-ups. It assumes
that its readers lack common sense and the resources to make elementary
decisions about how to conduct their intimate affairs. Worse still,
Married Life promotes the idea that it possesses a superior understanding
of human relationships, which it has a duty to impart to an otherwise
The same patronising formula is adopted by the booklet Dads &
Sons, published in August 2002 by the Department of Education and
Skills. In a section advising fathers how to help sons with their
homework, it says: ‘make sure he’s got somewhere comfortable
to work away from the TV.’ Dads & Sons assumes that fathers
are just grown-up children who need to be reminded of the blindingly
obvious. This theme is also echoed in a ‘Dad Pack’ published
by the government in June 2006. Men are advised ‘not to have
affairs’ during their wives’ pregnancy; they are also
instructed ‘to bite your lip, not your partner, when she is
Not all government publications or initiatives seek overtly to
treat grown-ups as children – but they do tend to be based
on the idea that officialdom has both the right and the authority
to modify our personal behaviour. From time to time, government
officials react defensively when criticised for overstepping their
jurisdiction. Usually they will assert that they are not promoting
a Nanny State but are merely ‘helping’ or ‘supporting’
ordinary people. However, with the passing of time advocates of
state intrusion into private life have become more aggressive in
justifying their right to manage our behaviour. It was in this vein
that former children’s minister Margaret Hodge insisted that
the government has a ‘powerful’ role to play in family
life. She argued that ‘it’s not a question of whether
we should intrude in family life, but how and when – and we
have to constantly remain focused on our purpose: to strengthen
and support families so that they can enjoy their opportunities
and help provide opportunities for their children’ (12).
This rhetoric of ‘support’ is frequently used to justify
policies that demand that we conform to government strictures. ‘Support’
is always extended to those whom the government thinks needs help
– whether they like it or not. Support rarely means assisting
people in times of difficulty and struggle. In practice, it means
putting pressure on people to adopt a course of action favoured
by government. One government strategy document declared that its
aim was to ‘promote health by influencing people’s attitudes
to the choices they make’ (13). Supporting people to make
choices actually means getting them to do what the government believes
is in their best interests. In this paternalistic vocabulary, ‘informed
choice’ means behaving in ways ‘informed’ by government-sanctioned
Behind the scenes, the political elites are continually trying
to win public acceptance for their project of colonising private
life. Various publicity campaigns, ‘research’ and surveys
aim to endow the project with legitimacy. So it isn’t surprising
that surveys of the public often echo this government line, apparently
finding that members of the public want to be treated like children.
Take the King’s Fund’s survey, published in June 2004.
In a survey of 1,000 people, the Fund, which is devoted to ‘raising
awareness’ of public health issues, found that many people
supported the state’s right to control people’s diets
and public smoking. ‘This poll goes a long way to debunking
the myth that the public are afraid of a “nanny state”’,
said the Fund’s chief executive Niall Dickson (14). Surveys
which inform the people about what they really want are central
to the process of transforming grown-ups into needy children.
Today’s interventionism into private life is very different
to the previous approach to health and social policy. Those who
support the colonisation of the private sphere sometimes claim that
they are merely following in a progressive tradition that has covered
everything from the abolition of child labour to the provision of
free milk in schools. They claim their policies are designed to
anticipate and offset problems that might compromise public health.
However, these defenders of the enabling state confuse public health
policies that seek to create the conditions for healthy living with
public health policies that attempt to manage individual behaviour
and manipulate people’s emotions. Today’s campaigns
for ‘healthier lifestyles’ are less about improving
our health than indicating how we ought to live. They are motivated
very much by what government ministers themselves refer to as the
‘politics of behaviour’. According to Tessa Jowell,
a prominent New Labour minister, managing ‘the new politics
of behaviour’ is ‘one of the most fascinating challenges
facing the government’ (15).
Unlike Jowell, most advocates of the state management of personal
life have not yet codified their approach as the ‘politics
of behaviour’. Nevertheless, it is clear that the undeclared
project of today’s policymakers is to manage and control behaviour.
The term ‘politics of behaviour’ was coined by New Labour
MP Frank Field, who argued that Britain is moving from the ‘politics
of class to the politics of behaviour’ (16). Field believes
that the ‘new politics is about moderating behaviour and re-establishing
the social virtues of self discipline’, helping to reinforce
‘what is good and acceptable behaviour’ (17). He developed
the notion of a ‘politics of behaviour’ primarily as
a way of dealing with anti-social neighbours; but for others, the
real focus of this politics is the management of people’s
lifestyles and informal relationships (18).
Some proponents of the politics of behaviour prefer the term ‘positive
welfare’ to describe their policies. For Anthony Giddens,
such policies both pre-empt problems and help alter lifestyles that
might lead to negative outcomes. So it is not simply sufficient
to prevent smoking; apparently, ‘treatment for the physical
effects of smoking needs to be geared to making sure that individuals
subsequently alter their lifestyle habits’ (19). Unable to
come up with a positive or decisive social policy, the promoters
of the politics of behaviour attempt to alter individual lifestyles.
As C Wright Mills suggests, the demise of the sociological imagination
invariably helps to shift the focus from public issues to private
troubles. Today, governments are busy redefining public issues as
personal troubles. A report published by the Scottish Executive
claims that ‘pessimism is a causal factor in poorer educational
and job performance, lower longevity, depression and suicide’.
It also argues that low self-esteem is a risk factor for ‘poor
economic outcomes’ (20). Is it any surprise that policymakers
now invent policies that aim to make individuals happy? In 2002,
the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit explored the potential
for promoting ‘happiness policies’ at its ‘life-satisfaction
seminar’ in Whitehall, London. Presently, the Department for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working on a ‘happiness
index’. Soon, instead of measuring GDP or productivity, we
will make do with happiness statistics.
I feel your pain
The reorientation of the welfare state, from attending to people’s
material needs to attending to their therapeutic needs, is endorsed
by some critics of traditional redistributionist social policy.
They claim that, in the past, traditional policy was far too focused
on material goods. The argument for a more emotional system of welfare
is based on the idea that we need a ‘holistic’ approach,
one that meets the ‘emotional as well as physical needs of
human beings’ (21). This approach has received an intellectual
boost from those who argue that social inequalities are experienced
through a ‘psychosocial mechanism’ that links structure
to individual health. It is argued that socioeconomic factors now
primarily affect health through indirect psychosocial routes, rather
than direct material routes. From this standpoint, the call for
an egalitarian society is justified on the grounds that it will
improve individuals’ mental and physical health. ‘Emotions,
health and distributive justice are therefore intimately related
in the developed Western world’, argues one advocate of this
approach (22). In the field of British social policy, many believe
that the state’s assumption of a therapeutic role is a long
overdue reform. In the book Social Policy and the Emotions, Paul
Hoggett argued that the ‘concept of “wellbeing”
provides a core principle around which a new vision of positive
welfare could be organised’. For Hoggett and his co-thinkers,
‘wellbeing’ is defined essentially in mental-health
terms (23). In the same vein, Richard Layard claims that public
policy should be directed towards making society happier. And ‘to
become happier, we have to change our inner attitudes as much as
our outward circumstances’, he argues (24).
The idea that state intervention into people’s internal lives
is essentially unobjectionable, even desirable, enjoys widespread
intellectual support. Some claim that the role of public authority
and of the therapeutic professional is an empowering one. On both
sides of the Atlantic, advocacy groups continually demand that government
promote policies built around ‘emotional intelligence’,
‘happiness’, ‘emotional democracy’ or ‘emotional
literacy’. The aim of one British think tank, Antidote, is
to integrate the insights of psychology into political and public
life. It seeks to advocate policies that ‘foster emotional
attitudes tending to support the development of more cohesive societies’
The politics of behaviour may well provide a provisional solution
for an oligarchy confused about its role and direction, by substituting
therapeutic intervention for political direction. Where today’s
cultural elite lacks the confidence to tell people what to believe,
it feels quite comfortable instructing us how and what to feel.
This shift from the public to the personal is one of the distinctive
developments of recent times. As public life becomes emptied of
its content, private and personal preoccupations are projected into
the public sphere. Consequently, passions that were once stirred
by ideological differences are far more likely to be engaged by
individual misbehaviour, private troubles and personality conflicts.
In this climate, the practice of individual therapy is seen as indistinguishable
from the measures that are required for the ‘healing’
of society. As a Downing Street policy analyst noted, government
plays the role of a therapist exhorting the patient to ‘own
his anger’ (26).
Therapeutic policies aim to forge a relationship between government
and individuals through the management of our private lives. As
one commentator noted, ‘it is telling that technologies similar
to those employed by counselling have now become part and parcel
of the way in which the current British government governs its people’.
The politics of behaviour represents a quest to ‘gain unfettered
access to people’s subjectivity’ (27). Of course, to
some extent governments have always sought to influence public attitudes.
But influencing attitudes towards going to war or over issues such
as capital punishment is very different to manipulating how individuals
behave within the confines of their home. This therapeutic turn
to the private individual is underwritten by the idea that people
‘need support’ in order to cope with their state of
vulnerability. The unstated supposition of the politics of behaviour,
or ‘positive welfare’ if you prefer, is that citizens
must be treated like vulnerable children.
Why do many accept that therapeutic governance is essentially unproblematic,
and potentially even empowering? Because we live in a time when
individuals’ own capacity is derided. From this outlook, some
find it difficult to accept the ideal of the self-determining subject
capable of exercising democratic citizenship. There is widespread
scepticism about the ability of people to act as responsible citizens,
without the support of professionals who know what is in their best
This anti-democratic ethos informs government policymaking and
agenda. People are not so much engaged as ‘treated’,
‘supported’, ‘counselled’. Today, the authorities
take a highly individualised approach towards the public, which
seeks to disaggregate them and manage them as clients or patients.
Of course, so long as the public is disengaged from politics, they
can be treated as atomised individuals. The politics of behaviour
both confirms this status, and consolidates it.
The representation of state policy as an instrument of ‘empowerment’
institutionalises that relationship of dependence between patient
and therapist in a disturbing new way. It is difficult to reconcile
the view of an individual as someone whose emotional wellbeing is
contingent on institutional support, with the democratic vision
of a citizen who holds the powers-that-be to account. The transformation
of the citizen into a patient has the potential for altering the
relationship between the people and public institutions. The new
therapeutic social contract is underwritten by the paternalistic
assumption that the vulnerable subject needs the management and
‘support’ of officialdom and the state. Indeed, in all
but name it ceases to be a social contract at all, and turns the
relationship between the public and the state into an individual
One final point. Although the politics of behaviour is driven by
a moralising imperative, it rarely makes explicit the values that
it upholds. While ministers claim to be in the business of empowering
people to make the ‘right’ or ‘healthy’
choices, they seldom spell out their message. There is something
distinctly dishonest about the statement ‘helping people make
more healthy choices is now at the core of mainstream activity by
government’ (28). But this reluctance on the part of the government
to spell out what it wants people to do is not inspired by some
nefarious hidden agenda. Rather, the turn towards the micromanagement
of behaviour is symptomatic of an absence of purpose and direction.
Taking the social out of policy allows government to avoid engaging
with the question of what society is really all about.
(1) Cited in ‘“Problem Families” Scheme Set Out’,
BBC News; 5 September 2006.
(2) See Speech by the Prime Minister The Right Honourable Tony
Blair MP, ‘On Our Nation’s Future’, At the Albert
Hall, Nottingham, 26 July 2006.
(3) See Speech by the Prime Minister The Right Honourable Tony
Blair MP, ‘On Our Nation’s Future’, At the Albert
Hall, Nottingham, 26 July 2006.
(4) Cited by Patrick Wintour ‘Voters act like teenagers says
No 10 policy analyst’, The Guardian; 22 December 2005.
(5) Department of Health (2005) Choosing a Better Diet: a food
and health action plan, p.7. (Department of Health ; London).
(6) ‘Children at centre of drive for a fitter nation’,
The Guardian; 10 March 2005.
(7) Paul Barker ‘Lovers of freedom should fear for Britain,
not the US’, The Guardian: 10 January 2005.
(8) Home Office, Supporting Families: A Consultation Document,
p.30, 1998, London.
(9) ‘Draft speech for the Home Secretary – launch of
the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group’s
Report “Family Matters”, 23 July 1998.
(10) See ‘Nanny state tells dads-to-be: don’t have
a fling’, The Daily Telegraph; 14 June 2006.
(11) See ‘Nanny state tells dads-to-be: don’t have
a fling’, The Daily Telegraph; 14 June 2006.
(12) Cited in ‘”Nanny state” minister under fire’
BBC News-online, 26 November 2004.
(13) Department of Health (2005) Choosing Activity: a physical
activity plan, p.11 (Department of Health : London).
(14) Cited in ‘Public wants a “nanny state”’,
BBC News-online; 28 June 2004.
(15) See Tessa Jowell ‘Politics of Behaviour’ in The
Observer; 21 November 2004.
(16) Cited in Michael white ‘Frank Field plan to beat yobs’
in The Guardian; 10 December 2004.
(17) Cited in Flint (2004) p.2.
(18) For Field’ usage of the term see Field (2003).
(19) Giddens (1994) p.156.
(20) See Scottish Executive Strategy Unit (2005) Confidence in
Scotland., Scottish Executive : Edinburgh, p.1
(21) See Hoggett, P. in Lewis, G., Gewirtz, S. and Clarke, J.(2000)
(eds) Rethinking Social Policy, (Sage : London).p.144
(22) See Williams, S.J. (1998) ‘”Capitalising”
on emotions? Rethinking the inequalities in health debate’,
Sociology, vol.32, no1.pp.132-33.
(23) See Paul Hoggett ‘Social Policy and the Emotions’
in Lewis et al (2000) p.145.
(24) Richard Layard ‘Happiness is back’ Prospect; March
2005, issues 108.
(25) Cited in Furedi (2004) p.49.
(26) Cited by Patrick Wintour ‘Voters act like teenagers
says No 10 policy analyst’, The Guardian; 22 December 2005.
(27) Arnason, A. (2000) ‘Biography, bereavement story’,
Mortality 5 (2), p.194.
(29) Department of Health(2005) Delivering Choosing Health: making
healthier choices easier, Department of Health Publications : London,
published on spiked 11 September 2006